For generations, scientists have wrestled with the idea of creating new forms of life in the laboratory. Now that age is upon us.
The latest milestone occurred this summer when microbiologist J. Craig Venter announced that a team of his scientists had created a synthetic bacteria designed on a computer, with man-made DNA. The announcement was greeted with a mixture of praise, skepticism and rancor, which is familiar territory for Venter.
He is one of the most famous scientists in the world, known for his pioneering work in deciphering the human genetic code. But he is also one of the most controversial - an iconoclast with a brilliant mind and an outsized ego who has flaunted the conventional wisdom, and tweaked the staid scientific establishment at every turn.
Full Segment: Designing Life
Extra: Exploring The Oceans
Extra: The First "Synthetic Cell"
Extra: Human Genome & Disappointment
You don't have to spend much time with Venter to understand that he likes to go fast, as "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft found out first-hand when the scientist took Kroft for a spin in his Aston Martin.
Venter is an adrenaline junky, whose willingness to take big risks has led to bold scientific breakthroughs. And he is not exactly shy about touting those achievements.
Asked where he would rank himself in terms of scientific accomplishments, Venter told Kroft, "Well, in the field of genomics, I think the record is pretty clear cut: the first genome in history, the first draft of the human genome, the first complete version of the human genome. And having the first synthetic cells."
"So, the answer to the question is pretty high?" Kroft asked.
"I mean it's really hard to assess that yourself. But I think the teams that we have, and what we've accomplished are certainly amongst the biggest discoveries in modern science," Venter said.
If you have some stereotype of a scientist in your mind, Venter probably doesn't fit it. He has scuba-dived with sharks to gather microbes in the Pacific, and spent much of the past summer sailing through the Greek isles on his 95-foot research vessel, plucking new genetic material from the sea. He rarely goes anywhere without his wife Heather and their dog Darwin. And their home high above the Pacific in La Jolla, Calif. suggests the quest for scientific truth requires no vow of poverty.
"I have been lucky," Venter acknowledged. "Sort of the accidental millionaire in terms of people keep giving me money to start companies to exploit the science."
He runs both a privately-held biotech company called Synthetic Genomics, and a non-profit research lab, the J. Craig Venter Institute. Together, they employ more than 500 people on two coasts, including one Nobel laureate, Hamilton Smith, and some of the top scientists in the world.
"I'm much more like an orchestra conductor than the violinist," Venter said.
When asked what he thinks his greatest talent is, Venter said, "I have an unusual type of thinking. I have no visual memory whatsoever. Everything is conceptual to me. So I think that's part of it. I see things differently."
Venter likes to think big, and his latest advancement is no exception. He removed a Petri dish from an incubator in his lab and held it up to the light, revealing small dark specks of bacteria.
"This is the first synthetic species," Venter told Kroft.
"And how long did it take you to make this?" Kroft asked.
"Well, if you count the total time from the conception, about 15 years," Venter replied.
The project cost about $40 million over that time period, Venter told Kroft.